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DO THE FRENCH LIKE FRENCH MUSIC? By Frank Cadenhead


April 29 was a day to mark on my calendar. It was the second of two splendid concert performances at the Théâtre du Châtelet and lucky Parisians could bathe in the lush, bronzed musical rhetoric of Massenet’s masterpiece, Werther. That indefatigable champion of French music, 70 year old conductor Michel Plasson, was conducting his orchestra, the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. American stars, baritone Thomas Hampson and mezzo Susan Graham, were the amorous but doomed lovers. Their Act I duet had this jaded critic reaching for his Kleenex.

I was able to buy a ticket the day of the concert but the house was full. The stars shone brightly in their roles, a formidable supporting cast was also on stage and the energy was high. Hampson, singing a famous tenor role that the composer himself rewrote for a popular contemporary baritone, held nothing back and his moody title character was one of the most masterful and soaring portrayals I have ever heard in that theater. Susan Graham, who was recently in the same theater as Queen Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens, again demonstrated that she is without peer in the French romantic mezzo repertory. Well supported by a cast including the gifted baritone Stéphane Degout as Albert and soprano Sandrine Piau as Sophie, it was an evening that will long be remembered by those in the audience. With the microphones and television cameras, it is likely to have been recorded for some future recording or TV broadcast. As well it should be. It was indeed a triumph for all concerned and the ovation and flower tossing at the end was unprecedented.

But what is most remarkable about this evening is its rarity. It is seldom that the French romantic repertory gets the spotlight in Paris. A few years ago, in the magazine Opera News, the French coloratura star Natalie Dessay observed that the French really don’t like French music. She was, I believe at the time, frustrated by her failure to interest French opera houses in a performance of Leo Delibes’ Lakmé. I remember being surprised by this offhand remark at the time but subsequent observations would only confirm the truth of the statement. It is hard to find the extraordinarily rich Nineteenth century body of French composition on the opera or concert stages in Paris or around France.

Everywhere else in Europe, you find native composers being played with unrelenting regularity by their compatriots. The Finns play their Sibelius, the Poles play their Chopin and Szymanowski, the Norwegians play their Grieg and the Russians their Shostakovitch and Tchaikovsky. Even the English play their own composers at every opportunity. You can get some idea of this by noting that there are now two competing, and very fine, recordings of the complete symphonies of Arnold Bax available in UK shops.

At the Orchestre National de France, France’s top radio orchestra, the grand Kurt Masur conducted, in March, a cycle of the Brahms symphonies and concertos. This was another installment of the cycles he has scheduled since taking the reigns of Music Director and follows the Beethoven and Mendelssohn cycles of his first two years. These concerts are the hottest tickets in town. Maestro Masur, in interview after interview, boasts of his orchestra’s ease and sophistication in the German repertory.

Ironically, on my way to the opening concert of the Brahms cycle at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, on my car radio, the music director of the Orchestre de Paris, Christoph Eschenbach, was being interviewed. He was boasting of the virtues of his orchestra in the German repertory, prior to a recorded performance of a Mahler symphony, even asserting that the orchestra’s founder, the legendary Charles Munch, created the new orchestra in 1967 so that the Beethoven symphonies could be properly played. Next season, not to be outshone by rivals, the Orchestre de Paris will do cycles of Brahms, Beethoven and Mendelssohn in a single season! The third orchestra in town, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under its conductor Myung-Whun Chung, racing to catch up, is doing a cycle of the Mahler symphonies next season.

This bizarre competition between two German podium giants to convince the Parisians that their own orchestra is more echte Deutsch (purely German) is most likely reading the French public desires correctly. It is foolish to put an entire nation on the couch but you have to wonder if the French have some sort of inferiority complex about their musical heritage. A review of the recent seasons of the major orchestras and operas in Paris confirm only sparse programming of the French romantic or impressionist repertory.

It is, of course, difficult to contest the dominance of the giants of the German and Austrian repertory. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the others will always have pride of place in the world’s performance calendars. But why the French give so little space and attention to their own musical masters is a question that baffles outside observers.

The bicentenary of Hector Berlioz’ birth was celebrated last season and he is perhaps the most egregious example of how they hold their musical sons at arm’s length. In recent decades, Colin Davis, that tireless exponent of this unique musical genius, consistently programmed Berlioz in his concerts in the UK and America. As a result, his concerts and recordings made Berlioz far more popular and performed abroad than at home in France.

The enforced exposure to his superb musical palette during this celebration found the surprised French looking at him as a prodigal son and welcoming him home as a hero. Although the Paris Opera turned up its nose at the Berlioz year, the Théâtre du Châtelet had a major production of Les Troyens which was recorded for a DVD release. But the conductor, and likely instigator of this, was another foreign Berlioz booster, John Eliot Gardiner. A single concert performance of Benvenuto Cellini was conducted by American John Nelson at Radio France studios. By contrast, the Metropolitan Opera had productions of both Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini on the boards this season.

Hugues Gall’s reign at the Paris Opera is drawing to a close and he is to be commended his brave effort make a space for French contemporary composers in the regular season. But otherwise, he never strayed from the path of programming only a token number of the safe French repertory chestnuts like Carmen and Manon.

My taste in a wider view of French opera was whetted some 9000 miles away from the City of Light. My home town opera, the San Diego Opera, then under Tito Capobianco, had confidence in the attractiveness of the entire repertory. I remember an involving Henri VIII of Saint-Saëns, with Sherrill Milnes as the lusty king, and being easily seduced by the urgent music in Chabrier’s Gwendoline. As recently as a few months ago, a season highlight of SDO was Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles.

Closer to France, a tireless exponent of French music, Philippe Jourdan, created a widely heralded production of Henri VIII for his friend Montserrat Caballé - but only in Barcelona in 2002. Rumor has it the legendary diva is thinking about a performance of Massenet’s Cleopâtre next season in Madrid. This season saw a centennial production of Le Roi Arthus by Ernest Chausson in Brussels, which has a long history of programming French opera. This coming season, you can hear Paul Dukas’ opera, Ariane et le Barbe-Bleue if you are passing through Zurich at the right time. There is a in-depth festival celebrating the music of Saint-Saëns going on right now in London and Chicago, London and Washington had recent major productions of Samson et Dalila.

France has, from time to time, wider reportorial choices if you are willing to get on a plane or train. An oasis for the French music has always been the city of Toulouse. Michel Plasson was the city’s musical chief for nearly 40 years and his love of French repertory was tolerated, even welcomed by the audience there. Another source was the small town of Compeigne where Philippe Jourdan is in charge of the “Imperial Theater” and every year revives a small slice of French musical patrimony. Last year a plucky staging of Meyerbeer’s Dinorah was a hit with both audience and critics. But these are voices crying in the wilderness.

In the program for the new season which just arrived for one of the main stages of Paris, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, of the three operas staged, none are French. Of the seventeen operas in concert and oratorios to be performed, none are French. In the concerts of the Orchestre National de France, aside from two contemporary compositions given their French premieres, there is no French music until page 56 of the catalogue. This is a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique by a guest conductor, one Sir Colin Davis.

It is only in February of 2005 that we have a single French evening conducted by Kurt Masur, featuring works by Debussy, Ravel and the Franck Symphony. The twelve programs of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, with Maestro Chung’s Mahler Cycle, has not a single French work listed. The twelve concerts of the Orchestre Ensemble de Paris has John Nelson playing yet another Beethoven symphony cycle but he did find space for three small French works as fillers. The piano recital programs listed are no less French-free even though a good percentage of the keyboard stars are French.

The Orchestre de Paris, with its three cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn elbowing out the competition, managed to find space for four works by French composers with the notable exception of two all-French evenings in January and March of next year by the visiting Michel Plasson. In the 10 year history of that important January gathering of musicians and audiences, the Folle Journee in Nantes, the least successful with the ticket-buying public was the one where director Rene Martin’s program was centered on French composers.

Token efforts are in the works. Messiaen’s epic Saint François d’Assise is a centerpiece of the coming Paris Opera season which also includes Poulenc‘s Dialogues des Carmélites. The coming season in Lyon (and the following one in Paris) will feature new productions of Chabrier’s Le Roi Malgre Lui. The dream team of conductor Marc Minkowski and director Laurent Pelly are taking on Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein at Châtelet in September, hoping to recreate the success of La Belle Hélène of 2000. But these exceptions only prove the rule.

Thanks to the leadership of American-born William Christie and those he inspired, French baroque is a dazzling exception. Christie’s surprising, rousing hit, Lully’s Atys, at the Paris Opera in the early 80s, put baroque in the musical mainstream in France and it has stayed there ever since. In May, for example, there were two major new Rameau opera productions. The Lyon Opera had a Minkowski/Pelly staging of Les Boréades while Bill Christie was doing a splashy, energetic production of Les Paladins at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

But this makes the absence of more recent French music on the scene even more difficult to explain. The French value their writers, poets, painters and filmmakers. The French government’s “cultural exception” guarantees that French culture gets a leg up on foreign competition. New compositions are commissioned by the basketful. But the unwarranted, inexplicable distaste for French music on the part of French audiences, a sad secret known in France for many years, should be addressed by the cultural leadership. Should the government insist that its subsidized institutions pay attention to a forgotten and fast-disappearing musical legacy? There are too many treasures gathering dust on the shelves.

Frank Cadenhead

 


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